Loose Pass

Date published: August 30 2016

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with delayed reactions, extended seasons, outlandish suggestions and making contact with eye or eye areas.

Fine words

Here’s an oddity: the schedule for next year’s British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand was made public on July 10, 2015 – but the howls of protest emanating from English rugby have only reached our ears this week.

What gives?

The much-delayed brouhaha began at the launch of the new Aviva Premiership season, with Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall denouncing the length of the tour as “ludicrous”.

Wasps chief (and former Lion) Dai Young also chimed in, questioning why the tour needed to be so long and to begin so soon after the end of England’s domestic season.

But these were mere digs in the ribs compared to the onslaught unleashed by Premiership Rugby boss Mark McCafferty in the latest edition of the Observer – i.e. the one published mere days ago.

“It is not sustainable that players can go through a club and international season, be involved in that scale of tour and then be in shape for the following season,” he thundered.

Now, regular readers of this column will know that we love to bleat on about professional rugby’s scant regard for the welfare of its operatives. It follows that we should fall squarely behind McCafferty – make him our poster-boy, even.

Don’t hold your breath.

The fact that he chosen this point in time to come out and say all this is borderline cowardice.

He says that “people involved in the Lions need to listen” to his concerns. Well, Mark, why didn’t you call them back on July 10, 2015? Why weren’t you speaking to them whilst they were concocting their “punishing schedule”. Indeed, why haven’t they been one of your speed-dial numbers since you took the helm of Premiership Rugby way back in 2005? That’s a tenure that comprises a full cycle of Lions tours!

Okay, he claims that clubs in England and the PRO12 have no say in the organisation of a Lions tour. But that’s a rather weak excuse coming from the very man tasked with speaking up on behalf of Premiership clubs. Have your say! Get yourself heard! That’s the job!

He knows this, of course. He’s not stupid.

The only reason he’s remained schtum on the issue until now – the eleventh hour, at the point of no return, with the ship sailed – is painfully obvious: raising timely concerns about the length of the season would risk the shocking prospect of actually having to do something about it himself.

Abandoning the Premiership play-offs would fix all that ails. England would still have a champion side, the domestic season would be significantly shorter and – if the PRO12 followed suit – the Lions would get to train and travel together, giving them their best shot at beating the All Blacks.

It’s obvious, right? But McCafferty’s only tabled suggestion is to shorten the Lions tour: “Do you need to play that number of midweek games when the economics are driven off the back of three Tests in the main?”

And on that point I suppose we can only demur to McCafferty’s business acumen: if economics has become the main driving force behind the Lions, perhaps we should simply consign the famous touring side to rugby history.

Then again, why not take another look at those play-offs? If no soccer league in the entire world feels the need to “generate a greater climax to the season”, why does rugby?

Houston is not the problem

Continuing with the theme of player welfare (yes, our obsession borders on the clinical), Loose Pass mournfully notes that World Rugby is “open” to the idea of North American teams joining the PRO12. What’s more, talks between the various unions have already been held.

Apparently Houston and Vancouver have been “earmarked” as possible contenders, which would mean expanding the competition to 14 sides and stretching it across nine time zones. Sides would endure return flights totalling over 24 hours, not including stops – and they’d have to stop.

Despite all this, PRO12 managing director Martin Anayi claims – yep, you guessed it – “player welfare” is at the heart of the thinking.

That and money, of course.

Brett Gosper, the rather-too-slick chief executive of World Rugby, littered his take on the proposed expansion with business buzzwords. We trotted out “high-growth market” and “competing for eyeballs on broadcasts” and even referred to the Rugby World Cup as a “product”. Eewh.

But perhaps Gosper is right to say it how it is. The PRO12 needs to evolve or it will surely die. It currently makes about £12m a year in broadcast revenues. To put that in context, Top 14 clubs are expected to spend in access of €300m (£256m) this season – and they’ve just put pen to paper on a new TV deal that will pay out £76m per season from 2019/20.

No, the Top 14 isn’t the model for all to follow. Far from it, in fact. The money is surely unsustainable and, for lack of a better phrase, slightly gross.

But the simplicity of their “product” is highly attractive. It’s French teams versus French teams. Ancient rivalries. Historical grudges. Local derbies.

And now we are to be offered Houston v Treviso? Vancouver v Newport Gwent Dragons? And how does the wider game in the US and Canada benefit from having the best teams removed from the burgeoning domestic equation?

If expansion to North America is the answer, we can’t help but feel Gosper and Anayi have misunderstood the question. They’d best be advised to circle back, drill down, adjust their bandwidth, offshore the silos and peel back the onion.

Black magic

The decision to clear Owen Franks of any wrongdoing over his much-publicised, erm, ‘tussle’ with Australia’s Kane Douglas was an absolute sham.

That’s the reckoning of Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll, and who are we to argue with the great man? We totally agree.

We’re not saying it merited a ban, and we sure as hell won’t be drawn on whether it was an actual eye-gouge or not. But Franks should have at least been hauled in front of the beaks to answer for his actions.

Why? Because the laws state that “contact with an opponent’s eye or eye area is a serious offence”, and it was obvious – even in real time – that the New Zealander made contact with his opponent’s eye or eye area. Ergo, it was a serious offence.

It was actually more than contact: Franks was pulling at the Australian’s face knowingly. So knowingly, in fact, that he pulled at said face whilst watching the referee’s face for a reaction. And when Romain Poite duly reacted, Franks let go. Those are the actions of a man who knows he’s in the process of committing – as the law states – “an act contrary to good sportsmanship”.

So quite how all this was lost on Sanzaar is utterly baffling. Some have pointed to the ‘NZ conspiracy’ and the widely-lobbed accusation that wearing black grants you impunity.

Perhaps that’s what BOD had at the back of his mind – he is, lest we forget (we won’t), the most famous victim of rough justice in New Zealand. And a French colleague of Loose Pass opined that Franks would be currently embarking upon an entirely new career had he a cockerel on his chest rather than a silver fern.

But we won’t get drawn into that, either!

Loose Pass was compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson